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The Love Detox
St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada
The Love Detox
My professional disillusionment took three months and cost me 150,000 words. Every morning on 63 sequential work days, the creative director wandered into the office and gave me a voice recording. They were, without exception, the rambling "thoughts" generated during his morning commute. He didn't edit out the cell phone conversations he had with his wife, his mother, clients and friends along the way. He did start out each morning with something that could have been considered a chapter heading among non-readers. He got progressively less clear after that.
It was my responsibility to take the recording and massage it into an informed manifesto of Internet advertising, marketing and popular culture. The agency's goal was to create an in-house guru out of the creative director. They wanted someone they could send out to current affairs shows and have his stature and expertise in the field go unquestioned. They wanted a book to provide the intellectual capital.
The board of the agency thought a mere book could generate the respect my former boss, a genuine expert on technical economies, had - without the academic background, carefully constructed caveats or investment in years of research. In other words, they were representative of advertising agencies everywhere.
Listening to the entire 40-minute recording was torture. By the end of the first week I was listening only long enough to satisfy my own standards of how much a person should actually have to contribute in order to be identified as the "author" of the book. My standards started out as rigid, idealistic things. Survival demanded that they become more and more flexible. By the end of the project, I was content to keep one of the original words from each day's chapter heading. Pronouns counted, so did conjunctions. I do have to confess that I included his mother's recipe for Scotch short bread without changes. I wanted to prove I could make the link between hijacking another product's viral marketing technique and holiday preparations. It kept me entertained.
The vast majority of the 150,000 word opus I just made up, borrowing the voice and tone of a different motivational speaker each day of the week. While I gave each chapter a read through at the end of the day to check for spelling and format errors, nothing ever went to a second draft. If anything, I learned that all businesses claim through their manifestoes to operate according to the pseudo philosophies and pseudo idealism of the world's literature graduates.
I'd joined the company in the hopes of improving my technical skills and developing my management potential. Instead, the programmers saw me as the less-snooty of the women in the marketing department and the designers saw me as the nerdy copywriter. The marketing department saw me as someone who used too many big words.
Since the beginning of the book project, I had been desperate to move on, but the interactive industry was in the middle of "a market correction" and jobs like mine were disappearing.
My friends among the programmers kept me sane for a time. A few of them had lived through the social hell of being high school math and physics geniuses. Even I, with my drama club credentials, was considered the height of cool among them. I may have been the first person of the female persuasion to give them my undivided attention. I planned corporate outings to comedy clubs, concerts and taught them all about the joys of tequila. In return, they taught me algebra and formal logic on the back of cocktail napkins.
It couldn't last. I pumped those programmers full of confidence and taught them how to talk up their contributions to people who, while less intelligent than they were, pulled the strings at the interactive agency.
"You have to remember," I told them, "they have no idea how what you do works, they just know they need you. They will pay anything to prevent anyone discovering the first part."
Annual review season came around and my stable of programmers communicated their expectations and articulated their goals well. They began to earn six figure salaries, felt more important and started relationships with women who were thinner, better-looking and more interested in money than I was. After that, I only heard from them when they needed restaurant recommendations for romantic evenings out. They had no time for my corporate outings anymore.
Finally, I printed the opus and scribbled a note to the copyeditor on a post-it. "Good luck! Ha! Ha!" it said.
I had finally found a new job.
It had come down to the disaffected corporate clone's career change of last resort: teaching.
To be honest, I always believed teaching would be a big part of my life. I thought, once I had a dozen years experience, had gotten married and had a few kids, teaching would be my ticket out of the technology world and its sixty-hour work weeks. I thought teaching would give me time to have a career and raise a family and grow tomatoes out in the garden.
I was now more than seven years ahead of schedule and the job description was nothing like the one I'd imagined. I was not working for a community college, but as a teacher-bureaucrat for a government agency.
The agency would fly me into one economically disadvantaged community after another. First they would fly me into an East Coast fishing village that hadn't seen a cod in years and then into an interior mining town where almost an entire generation of men had died after being exposed to uranium. The contract was for one calendar year. My plan was to give up my room in the co-op, leave my few valuable things in storage and accelerate my student loan repayments while touring the country to bring the wonders of digital technologies to fishermen, miners and lumberjacks.
Since my family lived in one of the depressed economies I would visit, I reasoned that we would have more time together than we had in years. It might challenge the peaceful affection we'd managed to create over the distance, but I'd found myself missing conflict with my mother and siblings anyway.
My best friend had moved in with her boyfriend. He was a fat, old, tenor. He'd been diagnosed with a serious heart condition and she was determined to take over his care. She spent her mornings poaching eggs with tomato slices. She spent her evenings constructing exotic salads served with sunflower oil and managing his medications. I imagine she made love to him with her night gown on so she wouldn't over excite the old fellow and have him die underneath her. She thought if she took good care of him, he could last for years.
The doctor's were not as hopeful as my best friend. They knew a thing or two about addictions. She went to work praying that her tenor wouldn't sneak out for a lunch of fettuccini al Fredo or veal parmesan with a side order of porcini mushrooms in herb cream sauce. Naturally, that is exactly what he did. I caught him with the butter-laden fork in his hand.
"I can explain everything," he said, but I told him it wasn't me he owed an explanation to. I wasn't about to let my best friend waste the best years of her life on a man determined to commit suicide by the plate.
Unfortunately, much like catching a man in flagrante delecte, catching a man is flagrante delicioso is fraught with questions about how much and what to tell. How much about her fat, old tenor's outside meals did my best friend already know without wanting to admit she knew? He begged me to let him off with a warning. I hesitated for several minutes and watched him sweat. The smell of garlic coming off his damp skin became unbearable, so I let him off.
If he didn't take the opportunity, I reasoned, I could fly home immediately if my best friend needed me.
I was scheduled to leave in January and spend one complete year on the road. I wasn't certain that any of the decisions I had made were made were right, but I could see sense in leaving the agency and starting something new. It seemed logical to give up my rented home since I wouldn't be there to enjoy it. My friends had each other and their significant others. I thought the words for what I was about to become were free and unencumbered. By February, though, it was clear that I was homeless in hotels, rootless in rented rooms and alone in whatever abode I found myself that week.
I went into the middle of the country and spoke at the Wheat Board Auditorium. I told farmers about the joys of email. I showed them the agri-pharma industry's best web sites. I taught them where to find the tools for long term weather forecasting and how to use them. I slept with a man who'd moved back from the city after ten years to take over his parents' farm. He was wearing a dark blue and light blue plaid flannel work shirt and I had wanted to feel its softness against my cheek.
"How long did you say you were going to be in town?" he asked me.
He made a note in his calendar and skipped the rest of the Wheat Board interactive technologies lecture series.
Valentine's Day came. My best friend sent me a message telling me that her fat, old tenor had lost fifty pounds and now had the cholesterol levels of someone our age. The copy editor of the agency manifesto told me that, really, the book wasn't bad at all. My mother sent a message saying that she and her new boyfriend would be in Florida for the first week I was scheduled to be at home and could I please feed the cat and water the plants.
"No one loves me," I said to no one because no one was there.
There had been a mistake of unknown origin at the government payroll office and I wasn't paid for the first two months of work while they sorted it out. My student loans were in default and the bank sent threatening letters to my mother's house where they disturbed the cat so much he sprayed all over the carpets the entire time I was at there.
It was Valentine's Day when I realised no one loved me. The day passed, but the realisation didn't.
I flew into the far north to teach a band of Inuit people about the Internet. There was no Internet there. There were no computers and there was only one telephone in the local office of the Department for Indian Affairs and it was only used in emergencies. I had to draw pictures on a flip chart to illustrate what I was talking about. How was it possible, I asked myself, that I had found the only new job in the world less relevant than the one I'd left?
I went back to my room and lay down on the bed repeating, "no one loves me, no one loves me," until I felt so bad I threw up. There was no email from friends or family. There was no way to read it if there had been.
The next day, I went back to the community centre that was shaped like an igloo to draw more pictures about the Internet and everyone was in the village was there.
"I am so embarrassed," I said.
"These things happen," the chief said.
The village kids ran around playing and shouting and having a good time.
"I guess it would be nice if they could learn to type or something," the chief said.
"I wrote letters to all my business associates by hand.
"The next time you upgrade," I wrote, "please consider sending the old computers north where they are needed."
"The children want to learn to type," I told them. "Maybe you could install some games."
No one wrote back because no one loved me.
I couldn't draw any more pictures about how the Internet worked, so I gave the rest of the flip chart paper and the markers to the kids. They drew pictures of computers with beaks and talons, fangs and claws.
I looked at their pictures and got down on the community centre floor with a piece of flip chart paper and a marker. I wrote a letter to the alternative weekly sex advice columnist who'd answered my best friend's letter when she had that problem with the Sumo wrestler.
I told him everything. I told him about the programmers, their trophy girlfriends and the corporate social outings. I told him about the creative director and the recordings and about making up an entire book of nonfiction. I told him about my best friend and her old tenor, his bad heart and cheating stomach. I told him about the farmer's son and his plaid flannel work shirt against my cheek. I told him about Valentines' day and about throwing up because no one loves me.
I even told him my new worry about being at the centre of a spending scandal once the media found out I was drawing pictures to illustrate the internet in an igloo-shaped community centre at tax payer's expense.
"Well, these things happen," the chief said.
I hadn't realised I was speaking aloud as I wrote. I had gotten too used to being all alone and talking to myself.
"I really enjoyed watching you draw all those nice pictures," one of the grandmothers said. "It's been good having you here."
The grandmother sent one of the kids to get me an envelope from the office for my letter.
Clearly, I needed advice from an expert.
The kids used up the rest of the flip chart paper and the elders made tea so they could start telling stories. I was settling in to listen but the pilot came in looking for me.
"If we don't take off now," he said, "we won't have clear weather again for another two weeks."
In the rush to get to the plane I lost my letter.
We flew south and west. I was expected at a mental health centre. The government wanted me to start a program as part of their detox satellite clinic project. I would visit each of the small community clinics and, when addicts came in to be rehabilitated, I would teach them about using the Internet to find emotional support and for creative self-expression. I was relieved to find that they had computers in place.
I could finally check my own email. My best friend told me that her old tenor had joined a gym, gotten a hair cut and bought some new clothes. His voice had improved as his health improved. He was being offered roles in Europe for the first time in a decade. They had started to discuss having a baby. One of the programmers from the agency asked me why I was writing snail mail to ask for old computers. The creative director sent me a jpeg of the book cover illustration and his author photo.
"Nope, no one loves me," I said and shut off the computer.
I walked into my first class of recovering addicts to teach them about the wonders of modern technology. There, I saw my old friend Byron Klein.
Every joke I tell at parties; the good, the bad, the dirty, the clean; I probably heard from Byron Klein. He had changed, but I knew who he was immediately: my platonic high school soul mate.
When we were fifteen, he told me all about oral sex. I told him I couldn't imagine ever giving or receiving it. When we were sixteen, he confessed his devotion and love for my best friend. I told him about my crush on the fireman who had rescued that same best friend and I from her very first car accident. When we were seventeen, we smoked pot together and told long rambling stories without beginning, middle or end that convinced us of each other's brilliance.
When we were eighteen and it was all about to end, we lay down in a field together. I rested my head on his shoulder and he rested his head on my opposite shoulder. We looked at the stars and told each other every secret, fear and hope that children hold when they are required to grow up immediately. His family was moving to a logging camp deep in the forest where his father had a new job as a supervisor and there was well-paid work for strong and agile young men. I was going to university.
"I am afraid that I'll flunk out and have to become a secretary," I told him. "I am afraid that I won't type fast enough and be a really crappy secretary."
"I'm scared that I'll fall out of a tree and be paralyzed from the neck down," he told me. "I'm worried I'll spend my life eating dinner and breathing through a straw."
Never, even when we were closest and stoned, did Byron and I ever do more than hug. On occasion, we held hands. At graduation, we shared a slow dance but it was awkward. We were friends and that was how it was meant to be.
Here he was again. The first familiar face I had seen in months and he was an out-patient at a backwoods detox clinic.
"I fell out of a tree," he said. "They cut me off the painkillers, but I couldn't handle it. I still needed something."
We went out for coffee after class.
"I needed something and I found bad stuff," Byron told me. "I took money from my mother's purse. My dad threw me out. My girlfriend got pregnant so I moved in with her. I took money from her purse too and she threw me out."
I had heard this story before from other people. Only the name of the drug changed from telling to telling.
I thought back to the days when Byron and I had both "shown promise."
"Shows promise" was a favourite report card comment among teachers at schools in the economically depressed area we grew up in. It meant "your child no longer reverses her Ps and Gs." Later, it meant that he could multiply sales tax percentages in his head. Still later, it meant that your teenager might just slip into university and into a profession or, barring that, she could most certainly become a teacher.
Now, I was learning that "shows promise" also meant that you might just make it. You might struggle to keep your children in hot dogs and video games on two badly-paid salaries. You might manage that. It was certainly better than not showing promise and dying before the age of forty with a drug addiction and many enemies. The shows promise thing, I thought, could still go either way for Byron Klein.
"I'm glad to see you," I said. I needed a friend. I didn't realise that I hadn't told him a thing about where I had been or what I had been doing since I saw him last. I didn't notice that he hadn't even asked.
The night after we were reunited, I didn't feel so bad. I didn't throw up before bed.
He joined my class. He told all his classmates that we'd gone to high school together. They called him teacher's pet.
"It all started to go wrong for me when I didn't have you," he said. "I realise now that's exactly why it happened. I should have stayed with you. It has always been you."
That night I didn't think "no one loves me" once. Instead, I thought, "Byron Klein loves me, he's always loved me."
I started to imagine ways I could help Byron. I thought he just needed some structure, someone to project manage his days and show him how to reach goals. I even considered taking him with me on the road so he could keep me company while I fixed him.
He wasn't in class the next day, or the next.
"Probably fell off the wagon," his classmates said.
On the third day, he came back.
"That bitch told me if I cleaned up, I could see my son," he told me. "Now, she says I have to find a job and pay child support to show I am ready. She wants me to prove it's going to stick."
"So you fell of the wagon," I said.
"It hurt Carina. What she said hurt me," he cried.
I had a moment of clarity then. I could imagine his pregnant girlfriend sleeping with her wallet under her pillow. I could see her hiding his bank card and picture her shock when she found out he really had sold the stroller for drug money.
"If I was with you," he said. "It wouldn't have happened. You understand me. My biggest regret is that I didn't know it before."
My moment of clarity brought on another.
"Don't waste your regrets on me," I said. "There's no sense regretting something you haven't done. Not when you've actually done so much to regret."
I knew that if he couldn't get it together for his girlfriend or his son, he wasn't going to do it for me. Byron doesn't love me after all, I thought. All things considered, I was OK with that.
My best friend sent me an email. The tenor was gone. He wasn't dead, he'd just left her. He'd used her as a nurse and left her when he was better.
"I have to finish one last course," I wrote back. "Then I'll come home."
I had to go back up to the igloo-shaped community centre. There had been a small miracle and they'd gotten computers. They needed a refresher course and someone to teach the kids how to type.
"Sometimes these things happen," the chief said. He was positive about it this time.
The chief opened the door to reveal a room full of nicely refurbished computers, two printers and a fax machine. There was even a second phone line to connect the village to the world. My flip chart pictures from the last course had been taped to the walls beside the kids' pictures of computers with beaks and talons, fangs and claws.
There was even more.
"This came for you a few weeks ago," the chief said and handed me an envelope. Someone had found my letter to the alternative weekly sex advice columnist and mailed it. Now I had a reply.
I can't publish your letter. It's definitely well written and full of problems, but I write a sex advice column. You don't have a sexual problem. Sure, the flannel shirt thing is perverted and Canadian, but it's a kink you can deal with.
Still, I've been worried about you and you did ask me for advice. So here it is:
Other people's love comes and goes. All you have to worry about is who and what you love. It's clear to me from your letter that you love your life and your wacky best friend. You love your programmers and your problems. I think, deep down, you love every moment of this great adventure. I even think you love your self, which is pretty rare these days.
So, when you get a bit lost, like you are now, try to remember that woman inside who loves herself. Even if you don't feel like her, pretend that you do. Before you make any decision, ask yourself what a woman who loves herself would do. That kind of love will always see you through.
"Sounds like good advice if you ask me," the chief said. He had been reading over my shoulder.
I thought I might cry, but when I looked up, I saw the plaque on the wall. The computer room had been dedicated to my old agency.
"They sent someone up to install it all too," the chief told me.
I logged on to send my very first email from the far north.
"Is it true?" I messaged one of the programmers. "Did you really send all the old computers north like I asked you to?"
"Of course we sent them," he replied. "You know we all love you."
is a Canadian writer living in Europe and a long time fan of OnceWritten.com. Born in Toronto and raised in St. Catharines, ON, Canada, she now needs three languages to get through each day and retreats into writing every afternoon. Her work ranges from technology journalism to creative nonfiction and from experimental fiction to chick lit. "The Love De-Tox" is from her recently-completed book Tales from Planet Wine Cooler for which she is actively seeking a publisher. Links to other published pieces can be found at www.katebaggott.com
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